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Alcohol FAQ

Everything you have ever wanted to know about alcohol.

Introduction

Canadians sometimes forget just how commonplace alcohol is on our society. Alcohol can create great harm when consumed at inappropriate times, in excess or by people that have an inability to consume alcohol in moderation. However, alcohol also is the main ingredient in a number of personal products (aftershave, cologne, perfumes, mouthwash) as well as medical products (antiseptic, medications such as cough syrup) and industrial products.

Despite the worldwide prevalence of alcohol, however, a lack of knowledge still exists and so, the article is designed to answer the most common questions on the topic.

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What is Alcohol?

There are 3 common varieties of alcohol:

Methyl alcohol (also known as methanol or wood alcohol) is a flammable and poisonous form of alcohol made from the distillation of wood or made synthetically and used for such industrial applications as solvent, antifreeze or as a raw material to make other industrial chemicals.

Isopropyl alcohol (also known as isopropanol), like methy alcohol, is commonly used as a cleaner and solvent. It is also used to dissolve water or ice in fuel lines of automobiles. Isopropyl alcohol can also be used to sterilize surfaces, cuts or abrasions from infection. Isopropyl alcohol is also a good cleaning agent for electronic devices including computer monitor screens and keyboards.

Ethyl alcohol personal products (aftershave, cologne, perfumes, mouthwash), medical products (antiseptic, medications such as cough syrup), household cleaners and industrial products.

Rubbing alcohol can have either isopropyl or ethyl alcohol as the main ingredient.

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What is Alcohol Treatment?

Alcohol treatment describes the process of providing therapy to individuals who have been diagnosed with an addiction to alcohol. Alcohol treatment can be outpatient, hospital-based (inpatient), residential or even pharmacological (the use of prescription drugs to negate the effects of drug use, make patient feel sick if they relapse, etc.)

Drug treatment is also sometimes confused with alcohol detox which, typically, is staffed with nurses and provides medical assistance but little or no therapy to address the psychological component of the addiction.

Alcohol treatment can vary in duration, frequency and intensity.

It is important to note that just the amount of alcohol an individual consumes does not determine whether an individual needs alcohol treatment since it may just be alcohol abuse.

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What is Alcohol Rehab?

Although sometimes confused with the term alcohol treatment, alcohol rehab is an abbreviated version of alcohol rehabilitation. Alcohol rehab is a term most often used to describe a program that is residential as opposed to the shorter-term outpatient variety of treatment.

Please refer to the Sunshine Coast Health Center alcohol rehab section of our website for more information on our rehab program for men and their families.

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What is the Difference Between Drug and Alcohol Rehab?

There is very little difference between between drug rehab and alcohol rehab once alcohol or drug use has progressed to the addiction stage. In fact, the vast majority of rehab programs treat both drugs and alcohol in the same facility without separating clients based on whether they use drugs or alcohol. Recently, some drug and alcohol rehabs have advertised special programs for crystal meth and cocaine addiction, however, very little research has been conducted to determine whether drug or alcohol-specific treatment is more or less effective.

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What is Alcohol Abuse?

Alcohol abuse is alcohol consumption that creates problems for the drinker that includes missing work or school, DUIs (Driving Under the Influence) and car accidents, and alcohol-related medical problems. Pregnant mothers that drink alcohol, even in small amounts, may have an alcohol abuse problem.

Binge drinking is a form of alcohol abuse, particularly common among college students.

It is important to note that you can abuse alcohol without actually being an alcoholic.

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What is Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol addiction (also known as alcoholism) is a condition that meets criteria that staff at Sunshine Coast Health Center refer to as the 3 C’s:

  1. Control– individual has a hard time setting limits around how much or how often they consume alcohol (plan on having a beer and end up drinking a case)
  2. Compulsion– individual spends a lot of energy around planning and/or engaging in the consumption of alcohol (avoids places or events that limit opportunities to drink)
  3. Consequence– individual continues to drink in spite of negative consequences such as problems at work, marital difficulties, impaired driving charges, etc.

 

It is important to note that an individual can show compulsion and lack of control and still not have an alcohol addiction but, rather, will be symptomatic of alcohol abuse. True alcohol addiction must show a pattern of continued drinking in spite of consequences.

Sunshine Coast Health Center has more information on alcohol addiction and the 3 C’s test in the Addiction Tests section

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What is an Alcohol Treatment Center?

An alcohol treatment center is a facility designed to treat alcohol addiction. Alcohol treatment centers can either be residential, inpatient (located in a hospital) or outpatient. Outpatient treatment centers can offer either short-duration or intensive outpatient (also known as “day treatment”) treatment.

There are many varieties of alcohol treatment centers based on length of stay, age of client, treatment duration, facility amenities, level of supervision, skill set of staff, etc.

For more information see the Understanding the Stages of Alcohol and Drug Treatment section.

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What is Alcohol Detox?

Alcohol detox is a process where individuals experience withdrawal after consuming alcohol to excess on a regular basis. Alcohol detox is a necessary first step in stabilizing an individual before counseling is possible.

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, there are three goals for alcohol detox (or any other substance): 1. “to provide a safe withdrawal from the drug(s) of dependence and enable the patient to become drug-free"; (2) "to provide a withdrawal that is humane and thus protects the patient’s dignity"; and (3) "to prepare the patient for ongoing treatment of his or her dependence on alcohol or other drugs." (*)

The treatment setting for alcohol detox can either be inpatient (also known as “medical” detox) or outpatient (also known as “home detox” or “daytox”). For individuals with mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms, outpatient detoxification is safe and effective and less costly than inpatient alcohol detox. However, any individual with a history of severe withdrawal symptoms, withdrawal seizures, multiple previous detoxifications, co-existing medical or mental illness, pregnancy or lack of available supervision should consider inpatient alcohol detox.

Alcohol detox is not to be confused with alcohol treatment, which is the process of providing therapy to assist an individual deal with the behavioral aspects of his/her addiction.

Please refer to the Alcohol & Drug Detox Services section for specific information on the alcohol detox program at Sunshine Coast Health Center.

(*) Source: Kasser C, Geller A, Howell E, Wartenberg A. Detoxification: principles and protocols. American Society of Addiction Medicine.

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What is Binge Drinking?

According to the Addiction Foundation of Manitoba (AFM), Binge drinking is defined as drinking five or more standard drinks in a row for men and four or more for women. The most common age group for binge drinking are those ages 18 – 24 years old. A binge drinking episode may last for a few hours (a Friday night social, for example) or may go on for several days. Binge drinking is a leading cause of alcohol poisoning.

Source: AFM, The Basics, Binge Drinking.

For more information on binge drinking refer to the Help for Your Addiction section

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What is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning occurs when dangerous amounts of alcohol or consumed, drinking household products that contain ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol) or methyl alcohol (methanol).

Binge drinking is the most common cause of alcohol poisoning.

Since alcohol directly influences the central nervous system, breathing, the heart rate, and the gag reflex (which prevents choking) are all slowed. This can lead to choking, coma and even death.

It is important to note that drinking black coffee, taking a cold bath or shower, sleeping it off, or walking it off are not enough if you suspect someone of alcohol poisoning. Stay with the person and call your local poison control or 911.

Source: Mayo Clinic, Alcohol Poisoning, mayoclinic.com, February 12 2007

Please refer to the Drug Overdose First Aid section for how to handle alcohol poisoning.

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What are the Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning?

Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Mental confusion, stupor, coma, or person cannot be roused
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing (fewer than eight breaths per minute)
  • Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths)
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature), bluish skin color, paleness

Source: College Drinking – Changing the Culture, Facts About Alcohol Poisoning.

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What are the Effects of Alcohol on the Body?

The effects of alcohol on the body vary depending on dosage and duration.

Alcohol consumption in small doses can result in euphoria, drowsiness, dizziness, flushing, release of inhibitions and tensions. Excessive consumption can produce slurred speech, impaired motor skills, double vision, loss of consciousness and even death.

Long-term effects for a person who drinks heavily over an extended period of time can lead to liver damage, brain damage, heart disease, loss of memory, ulcers, disorders of the pancreas and impotence.

Please refer to the “Medical Aspects of Addiction section” of this website for additional information on the effects of alcohol on the body.

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What are the Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms vary depending on the amount of alcohol consumed and the duration of a drinking episode:

Symptoms that appear 6 – 12 hours after cessation of alcohol use: Minor withdrawal symptoms: insomnia, tremors, mild anxiety, gastrointestinal upset, headache, diaphoresis, palpitations, anorexia

Symptoms that appear 12 to 24 hours after cessation of alcohol use: alcoholic hallucinosis: visual, auditory, or tactile hallucinations

Symptoms that appear 24 to 48 hours after cessation of alcohol use: withdrawal seizures: generalized tonic-clonic seizures

48 to 72 hours: alcohol withdrawal delirium, hallucinations (predominantly visual), disorientation, tachycardia, hypertension, low-grade fever, agitation, diaphoresis.

Source: Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome. American Academy of Family Physicians, Volume 69, no. 6, March 15, 2004.

Please refer to the “Alcohol section” of this website for additional information on the effects of alcohol withdrawal.

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What is Alcohol Testing?

Alcohol testing is the process of determining the blood alcohol content (BAC) or concentration of alcohol in blood. Alcohol testing is most commonly performed by law enforcement when a motorist is suspected of impaired driving or in workplaces where there is a high risk of injury or catastrophic property damage. Typically, law enforcement estimates blood alcohol content from breath alcohol concentration using a machine commonly referred to as a Breathalyzer. Other ways of alcohol testing include saliva tests and blood sampling.

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What is Blood Alcohol Level?

Blood alcohol level (also known as blood alcohol content or blood alcohol concentration) is the concentration of alcohol in blood. Alcohol passes through your bloodstream to the brain.

Blood alcohol level is affected by the percent of alcohol in the drink (liquor has a higher alcohol content than wine or beer), body fat percentage, whether food is consumed before drinking (eating before and while drinking slows alcohol absorption), rate of drinking, and the number of drinks consumed.

In Canada, when the blood alcohol level is more than 80 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of blood, the person can be convicted of being "over the legal limit." (*)

(*) Source : ICBC, Impaired Driver Fact Sheet.

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How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

Alcohol stays in your system for as long as it takes the liver to break down the alcohol. On average, the body metabolizes one unit of alcohol (half a pint of beer, 125 ml glass of wine or 25 ml of liquor). As a rule of thumb, it typically take one hour for your body to process one unit of alcohol. Again, this can vary depending on your body size, sex, and amount of food in your digestive system. A damaged liver will slow the process even further.

Source: NHS Direct UK

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What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (also known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder) is a permanent condition that affects babies of mothers who consumed alcohol during pregnancy. Fetal alcohol syndrome causes damage that includes physical, behavioral and learning problems in babies. Physical damage includes abnormal facial features and severe learning disabilities.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has a picture of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome that shows the craniofacial features associated with the condition.

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Is it Okay to Drink Alcohol While Breast Feeding?

While it is clearly evident that drinking alcohol during pregnancy is a severe risk to unborn babies, less research has been conducted to determine the risks of drinking alcohol while breastfeeding. Nursing mothers who choose to drink should store milk before drinking and wait for alcohol to be eliminated from their breast milk after drinking.

For more information visit the Motherisk site, a website sponsored by the Hospital for Sick Children.

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Can I Have an Alcohol Allergy?

Not likely. Though a true allergic reaction involves the immune system, some adverse reactions to alcohol may seem like an alcohol allergy.

It is important to note that facial flushing after drinking small amounts of alcohol is not an alcohol allergy. Many individuals (particularly those of oriental/Asian background) are deficient in aldehyde dehyrogenase, which results in the accumulation of acetaldehyde after drinking alcohol. Other side effects including heart palpitations, headache, drop in blood pressure or the sensation of heat.

Rarely, individuals can be allergic to preservatives used in some wine and beers.

The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy Inc. has an excellent article on alcohol allergy.

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Is Beer and Wine “Safer” Than Liquor?

No. All alcoholic beverages must be consumed responsibly. One 355-ml (12 ounce) can of beer or a 150-ml (5 ounce) glass of wine has as much alcohol as a 40 ml (1.5 ounce) shot of liquor. 

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